IT SHOULD have been the entertainment industry’s best-kept secret. However, in February a hacker known only as Arnezami found a key to the encryption system protecting the latest high-definition DVDs against pirates and published it online just three months or so after the new players went on sale. Attempts to have the key removed from websites backfired and it quickly spread, even appearing in artwork and songs and on T-shirts. To make matters worse, other hackers soon discovered that, in some DVD players, by disconnecting a chip inside the machines they could circumvent their encryption system entirely.
Yet such setbacks aren’t deterring the industry from trying to make copy protection work. Worried by the fresh opportunities that digital broadcasting creates for pirates to copy and swap films and videos on the internet, the industry along with a conglomeration of TV studios, broadcasters and consumer electronics manufacturers is quietly pressing ahead with plans that could transform the way we watch TV.
Their idea is to add a hidden label to every digital TV broadcast. This will be read by a secure chip in the TV receiver in your living room and place restrictions on what you can do with a programme whether it can be copied, say, or even recorded in the first place. The studios or broadcasters will control these restrictions.
If the technology works as planned, it should help prevent pirates from making illegal copies of movies or TV shows and distributing them on the web. Innocent viewers will be affected too, however, according to US-based campaign group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The system could prevent you recording your favourite soap or pausing live TV, or stop you watching a recorded movie because you’ve already seen it once. “Worse, the restrictions can be changed at the whim of the rights holder,” says Ren Bucholz, EFF policy coordinator. “It may be that today you can record a programme and transfer it to DVD for long-term storage but next week you could be prevented from doing the same thing.”
In 2005 the courts blocked the introduction of a similar copy-protection system in the US. Yet the entertainment industry is determined to see the new technology operating in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. The final specifications are due for release by the end of 2007 and the system could be adopted soon after. If that happens, experts warn, the technology could be resurrected in the US.
It is hardly surprising that the major broadcasters and movie studios feel threatened. The internet has already made it simple to copy and share music tracks. Now, with high-speed broadband connections and powerful data-compression software, people can distribute video clips, films and TV programmes just as easily . This should become even simpler as TV broadcasters go digital before switching off analogue transmissions.
Just as record companies developed copy-protection software in an attempt to smash music piracy, the film and TV industry has long wanted a system that will thwart video pirates. In 2001, US-based Fox Broadcasting part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation came up with technology it believed could do it. Prior to broadcast, each programme would be labelled with a digital code called a broadcast flag. If the flag was set “on”, digital TV receivers would encrypt the programme when it was received. The only way viewers could then watch it would be with an industry-authorised TV or computer which would prevent them making unlimited copies or uploading clips to the internet. Unauthorised devices, such as DVD burners that could be used to create unencrypted copies of a film, would not be able to read it.
The broadcast flag was backed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which speaks for the Hollywood studios, as well as the US Federal Communications Commission and the “5C” group of electronics companies Panasonic, Sony, Intel, Toshiba and Hitachi. The scheme ran into trouble, however, largely due to opposition from campaign groups. The final blow came in May 2005 when the US Court of Appeals ruled that the Federal Communications Commission did not have the authority to force broadcast flag technology on consumers.
The MPAA was more successful in Europe. In 2003 a version of the broadcast flag system was adopted by the Swiss-based Digital Video Broadcasting Project (DVB), an industry-led consortium of over 250 broadcasters, manufacturers, network operators, software developers and regulatory bodies that was developing new digital TV standards for over 35 countries from Europe to Australia. The result is the Content Protection and Copy Management system (CPCM).
Until recently, very little was known about CPCM. The system has been developed in a series of international meetings held behind closed doors. The only non-industry participant was the EFF, which had to pay several hundred thousand dollars and sign a non-disclosure agreement to attend. Only in March, when the outline technical specification for CPCM was submitted to European regulators, did the EFF feel able to blow the whistle and publicise in plain English what CPCM would mean to viewers.
Ultimate controlCPCM is more sophisticated than the failed US broadcast flag. Each programme will contain a CPCM code that is read by a secure chip in the digital receiver. Rather than the simple “on” or “off” of the US version, however, CPCM allows broadcasters to impose a range of restrictions. If the programme is marked “not for recording”, say, any attempt to transfer it to a hard disc recorder or DVD burner will be blocked. Alternatively, the CPCM code might allow you to create a single copy, or allow you to record and view a programme for a limited time. It could prevent you storing a programme temporarily on a computer disc, which would disable the live-action pause facility on many digital recorders. CPCM can also stop video clips being uploaded onto the internet.
To work as intended, CPCM must establish a “secure” connection between receivers, TVs, recorders and computers in other words, a connection that can’t be hacked into to divert the content flowing through it and make an illicit copy. So the DVB project plans to use technology that is already built into many devices the high-density multimedia interface. This uses encryption to protect high-definition TV programmes and can even check if the connections between a digital receiver and TV screen are secure; if not, pictures will be blocked or deliberately degraded.
The restrictions that CPCM can create should make life difficult for video pirates. Innocent users will be affected too, though, warns Bucholz. “The system goes to some pretty dark places for consumers,” he says. “You won’t even know ahead of time whether and how you will be able to record and make use of particular programmes or devices.” Restrictions can be changed at will by the broadcasters, and without secure digital connections, TVs, digital or DVD recorders could turn into “oversized paperweights”, he says. If you take your equipment in for repair, the service engineer will tell you there is nothing wrong with it.
In contrast, Peter MacAvock, executive director of DVB, argues that CPCM will actually make things easier for consumers because it will harmonise video copy protection across different technologies, including TVs, computers, mobile phones and other hand-held devices. “Our aim remains to facilitate access to content in a converging digital television landscape,” he says. Information released by the DVB suggests that restrictions will be made clear to viewers, but does not say how and puts the burden of responsibility on the programme providers. Most likely viewers will get an error message on screen when they try to do something illegal. DVB also says there will only be a few types of broadcasts such as on-demand movies that viewers will not be able to record. If the EFF feels CPCM is flawed, says MacAvock, it should have addressed its concerns “using the DVB’s processes”.
Phil Laven, director of the technical department at the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), based in Geneva, Switzerland, believes that the protection offered by CPCM is important. “The threat of unauthorised redistribution over the internet is a real problem, both for pay TV and free-to-air broadcasters. If popular programmes are made available on the internet as they are being broadcast live, viewers elsewhere might opt to watch the illicit version thus reducing TV audiences and advertising revenue.”
Nevertheless, the EBU was unhappy with some aspects of CPCM, says Laven. For example, people in many European countries have a legal right to make a copy of broadcasts for personal use. Blocking this with CPCM could trigger lawsuits. What’s more, while Laven acknowledges that pay-TV broadcasters need to protect valuable content such as new movies, he believes there’s little point worrying about many programmes on free-to-air TV: “No commercial pirate is going to wait for free-to-air TV broadcasts of movies that have long been available on DVD. Although Hollywood might like us to take extraordinary measures to protect such movies against piracy, there really is no point.”
Will it even work? Copy protection on music downloads has caused so many headaches that some companies, including EMI and Linn Records, have removed protection from their tracks, arguing that it is simply not worth the bother. Copy protection on movie DVDs has also had a rough ride. A couple of years after the first DVDs appeared in 1997, their protection was unravelled by hackers a feat now repeated with the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) on new high-definition DVDs (New Scientist, 11 March 2006, p 42).
According to Ed Felten, a computer security expert at Princeton University, even if the entertainment industry changes the encryption keys, hackers will crack the fresh batch within weeks. Should CPCM prove more resilient than AACS, pirates could still make use of unrestricted analogue connections on digital recorders, or even simply film the screen with a digital video camera. “CPCM is happening just as the music industry is questioning the value of copy protection and hackers are proving just how ineffective it is,” says Bucholz.
This doesn’t seem to be putting DVB off. Its engineers are already building a “proof of concept” system to show that CPCM works, and the technology should be ready for ratification by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute later this year or early in 2008 and could be in operation soon after.
Is there an alternative? The EFF argues that rather than relying on protection that is easily defeated, the entertainment industry needs to move to a new kind of business model. “We do recognise that copyright infringement is a bad thing,” says Bucholz, “but there are other ways in which artists could be compensated without crippling new technologies or harming consumers.” Rather than adding copy protection to music tracks, for instance, the EFF advocates a voluntary collective licence in which consumers pay a small monthly fee that entitles them to unlimited downloads. A similar licence system has long worked for the radio industry, he says.
Ted Shapiro, a lawyer representing the MPAA says that this sort of licence is no alternative to CPCM. “The music sector producers and authors do not find the proposal workable either.” The EBU agrees.
Now Hollywood and the TV industry have come up with another strategy. In what it describes as a “bold new approach”, the Industry Trust for IP Awareness an alliance of 22 film and TV companies will spend 3m over the next year on TV and cinema adverts which try to stop illegal copying by making those who download pirated videos feel guilty. “We want to create a social stigma,” says Liz Bales, director general of the Industry Trust. “It has been done before,” says Johnny Fewings, joint managing director of Universal Pictures. “With drinking and driving, not smoking at football matches and picking up dog mess. We want to make people feel grubby.”
Streaming videoBarry Fox New businesses are springing up to make use of digital TV, video clips and movies. Some, including Joost, convert live TV pictures into digital data packets and stream them across the internet so they can be watched on computers anywhere in the world. Since many TV broadcasts are now digital rather than analogue, this is relatively simple.
Two popular consumer gadgets, Sony’s LocationFree and Sling Media’s Slingbox, even let you stream pictures from your home TV to a private website that you can access from anywhere in the world. Students living away from their parents for the first time use this technology to watch satellite or cable TV programmes from home, and lonely oil rig workers watch TV news sent direct from their home towns.
Is this legal? Like the situation with home copying of music, the laws differ from country to country and are nearly impossible to enforce using conventional techniques.
However the movie industry has pursued and shut down several websites that were hosting pirated movies, and in February, the media entertainment company Viacom began legal action against Google which owns video-hosting website YouTube claiming that some clips on YouTube are copyrighted. Others, including English football’s Premier League have followed suit, and both MySpace and YouTube say they will now remove copyrighted material on request.